Air travel is as popular as ever: in 2017, according to the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), there were more than 4 billion air passengers worldwide, the highest ever recorded.
In the UK, the last week of May 2019 was predicted to be the busiest week ever for UK airspace.
Despite this continued increase in air travel, aviation technology has not seen a significant overhaul since the 1960s.
So-called “airspace modernisation” is one way the UK is seeking to achieve this, through new technologies and methods to plan airspace use more efficiently, including use of satellite navigation to guide aircraft.
Savanta ComRes has been working with NATS to understand public perceptions of these modernisation plans and aviation more broadly. We found – perhaps unsurprisingly - that 82% of British adults agree that aviation is important for the UK economy and 59% are in favour of airspace modernisation.
So, in addition to these changes, what else are we likely to see over the coming years?
1. Environmentally friendly air travel
Electric car technology is developing quickly with a multitude of companies overcoming the biggest challenges to the technology – the length of charging time and the range of the vehicle at full charge. In other words, allowing vehicles to travel across the country without having to stop for 6 hours every 80 miles.
The technology being developed to address these challenges for land-based transport may well also provide us with electric aircraft that can travel for shorter distances. Experiments currently underway include Airbus’s hybrid-electric E-Fan X, backed by the Government who see it as helping the UK to be ‘at the forefront of next revolution in electric and hybrid planes – benefiting passengers and the planet’.
2. Commute by drone
Experiments with commercialising drones (beyond military and personal use) have seen media attention largely focus on delivery drones by the likes of Amazon.
But it may not be long until we’re hopping on drones ourselves to commute across the city. One such invention, the Volocopter, can currently fly for 30 minutes with a max range of 17 miles. That vehicle currently looks like something Edward Scissorhands might have dreamt up, but, with a bit more development, we could easily see drones used as taxi and bus services in cities, overcoming traffic and congestion issues.
3. Noiseless travel
Imagine sitting in a deckchair under a busy flightpath and hearing nothing but the sound of birds singing in the trees. The aviation industry has been trying to develop silent airplanes for over 15 years now, with the UK Treasury-funded Silent Aircraft Initiative launching in 2003.
Achieving a quiet plane may soon be a reality: in 2018 NASA tested multiple design changes which achieved up to 70% reduction in noise.
4. Flexible infrastructure
At the moment, creating physical links to rural communities requires expensive and lengthy infrastructure that can take years or even decades to build.
Dubbed ‘Uber for blood’, in Rwanda drones are used to deliver plasma quickly and efficiently to remote communities.There is likely to be a rapid expansion in the use of drones and other microtransport that bypass the need for heavy infrastructure investment.
5. Around the world in 80 minutes
In the next three decades we might be able to fly from London to New York City in 2 hours. That’s if Boeing’s planned ‘hypersonic’ plane goes ahead, which the company claims will be capable of flying at nearly 4,000 miles an hour – or five times the speed of sound.
As technology develops, some predict hypersonic speeds that will mean crossing the planet for a birthday party or business meeting could become the norm.
Since the glamorous days of 60s and 70s air travel, aviation has become seen more as the environmental miscreant of the transport world. But, just as technology has made air travel the safest form of transport there is, it looks set to make it cleaner, quieter, faster and essential to the lives of millions for whom access to emergency supplies would otherwise be denied. The Golden Age of Aviation is surely yet to come.